The Tholos at Epidaurus


The Tholos at Epidaurus

Like most visitors to the Asclepion at  Epidaurus I spent most of the time in the museum or walking about the magnificent amphitheater.  Back in the 1980s, when I was there, the remains of the Tholos consisted of the underground labyrinth.  I could not make much of that at the time, but after seeing the remains of the Tholos at Delphi and the Tholos at Athens, my interest was piqued.


Tholos Epidaurus
Artist concept of the original building constructed by the
architect Polykleitos of Argos, 360 - 330 BC.

Opposite the temple (of Asclepios) is the place where the pilgrims of the God sleep. A circular edifice built of marble nearby, known as the Tholos, is truly worth seeing. Inside the Tholos there is a painting by Pausias depicting Eros who, having left aside his bow and arrows, is holding a lyre. Methe, the goddess of inebriation, is also depicted drinking from a glass cup - another work by Pausias. The cup seems to be of real glass and through it one can see the woman's face.  -Pausanias, 2nd century AD


Cut-away of the tholos

Near the temple of Asclepios are the ruins of a circular edifice known as the Tholos. It had a circular sekos, a wing and an inner colonnade. A  ramp led to its entrance, which - as was customary with temples - was situated on the east side. Twenty-six columns comprised the exterior Doric colonnade, supporting a Doric entablature adorned with relief metopes with rosettes.  The inner colonnade consisted of 14 columns of the Corinthian order. The wall of the sekos  was between the two colonnades. This was made of white marble and had a window to let the light in. A large number of relief decorative elements – egg-and-dart mouldings - adorned the door of the sekos. The floor was paved with black and white limestone slabs».

A wide circle of black stone was in the centre. A circular white stone was at the centre of the circle. The stone was not secured so that it could easily be removed by any person wishing to go down to the basement with the three concentric corridors. The person who carried out the excavation thought at first that it served as a space for storing valuable objects. The inscription which gives an account of the cost of the temple refers to the Tholos as "THYMELA" and for that reason it has been supported that the Tholos was used as a refectory where the priests had their meals. A recent theory as to the purpose the Tholos served is that Asclepios, deprived of his heroic nature, was worshipped there.

This was so because Asclepios was a celestial god, an Olympian god, who was worshipped at the temple beyond the Tholos. But he was also a hero who derived his strength from the earth and ascended from the tomb just like a snake comes out of the earth. The Tholos is the symbolic tomb of the hero who lives inside the earth. The excavation of the temple of Asclepios at Pergamus, the most famous in Asia Minor, where a centrally-planned building was discovered, has made a significant contribution towards solving the problem.

                                                                           -Aglaia Arhondithou-Argyri, "Epidaurus" (pp. 22-26)




Some think the building demonstrated the two astronomical theories concerning the Sun: the geocentric theory of the sun's apparent course and the heliocentric theory with the sun at the center. The apparent course appeared on the exterior of the Monument for all visitors to see. The Heliocentric system inside the monument for the initiated. labrinth
Tholos floor plan The labyrinth is all that remains of the tholos today. It was positioned directly below the inner circle of columns.  Another theory has the tholos as an abaton. Patients were to sleep on the floor of the building and a priest would descend into the labyrinth and offer prayers directly below each of the patients.  The god would descend into the dream of each patient and provide a remedy or directly cure the patient.
There is also some mention of the patients sharing the tholos with a number of snakes. No authority has explained how a person might fall  asleep with a room full of snakes.

In the final analysis, nobody is sure of the function of this once remarkable building. -JJ

tholos reconstruction Museum at epidauraus
Currently a partial restoration of the Tholos is underway, 7 of the 26 columns of the  Doric colonnade are being rebuilt. The Museum at the Epidaurus

As I was unable to locate a definitive explanation of the function of the Tholos, I created my own, in the form of one act play. It can be accessed here:

THOLOS, a play